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February 15, 2008



"One thing Curtatone said he would not support in a charter reform is any lessening of his power as mayor."


And by the way Mr. "I'm accountable to the voters every two years", you are actually accountable to the voters every day you're in office.


Now that is what I call a true Freudian slip. Nice catch Cabbie.

Inman Square

I hope that the charter review is a true charter review that looks at everything. I for one would support a four year term for the mayor in return for some slight decentralization of power. The two year term creates accountability but it also makes everything more political than it needs to be (for example, an inability to do long term capital planning because of the constant need for immediate payoff.)

If its just about the school committee, I for one am opposed. If its a true look at a long-outdated charter I'd support it.


The first and most important charter change should be to eliminate the strong mayor and hire a city manager. It's time to have a professional run the city and not a career politician who has to hire all his supporters as payback for for their support. Look at the list of unqualified DPW commissioners we have had who's only qualification is they helped the mayor get elected. Let's all get behind charter change and demand that we have a trained professional run our city.

Remember When

Traditional breakdown
In the shadows of old loyalties and a high-profile police-brutality suit, candidates fight it out for the Somerville mayor's office
by Ben Geman
A bumper sticker seen recently in Somerville reads CONTINUING THE TRADITION OF SOMERVILLE PRIDE, in red letters. Below, in blue, are the letters ABC.
It's actually an opaque and snide piece of campaigning in the city's first wide-open mayor's race in a decade. The ABC stands for "Anyone But Curtatone," a slogan that departed mayor Michael Capuano's loyalists have aimed at Somerville alderman Joe Curtatone.

An officer under scrutiny
When a federal jury last week awarded just $15,676 in damages to plaintiffs in a high-profile police-brutality suit, Somerville police officer James Hyde, one of the suit's central figures, called the relatively paltry sum vindication.
Though he was found liable for using excessive force on one man (but not for causing injuries), and for inflicting emotional distress on both plaintiffs, in a brawl that erupted outside a Somerville bar in 1994, Hyde says the verdict showed that the jury didn't believe police acted violently or recklessly. "I think that what it came down to was that the jury believed our version of the story. I don't think they believed the plaintiffs," he says. "I think it [the bar incident] was an insignificant matter that got blown out of proportion, and that became apparent during testimony."

Yet Hyde remains under scruntiny as a probe into the incident by the state attorney general's office continues. And now, the Phoenix has learned that a Boston lawyer is notifying Somerville city officials as soon as this week that he plans to bring a federal civil suit against Hyde, stemming from a 1996 cocaine bust in a Somerville apartment that netted 858 grams of dope, about $60,000 in cash, and, says the attorney, a year and a half of wrongful imprisonment for his client.

John Swomley, who represented one of the two people arrested in the raid, blames Hyde for failing to cough up the identity of an informant central to the bust; he says that person could have provided evidence that would have freed his client, John Agudelo. "The basis of the [planned] suit is that our guy spent more than a year in jail for no reason and is entitled to be made whole again for that gross injustice," says Swomley, who notes that his client was unable to post bail.

The case against Agudelo was dropped by prosecutors in late 1997, soon after a Middlesex Superior Court judge ruled that the identity of the informant who said he bought drugs from a woman living at the apartment must be turned over to Swomley. In court papers filed shortly before the case was dropped, prosecutors acknowledge that the informant told the judge in late November 1997 that drugs seized in the raid did not belong to Agudelo. But prosecutors say the informant had nonetheless heard from "certain sources" that Agudelo was a drug dealer. Agudelo, now 33, had no criminal record at the time of the arrest, Swomley says.

Swomley had unsuccessfully tried to compel prosecutors to provide the identity of the informant in October 1996 and blames Hyde for failing to name the person who ultimately gave testimony that helped free his client. "Clearly a number of decisions about the informant were in the control of Hyde," says Swomley. In a police report, Hyde stated that Agudelo confessed to dealing drugs from the apartment, but Swomley says his client denies making that statement. He also says that Agudelo was not aware that the other person arrested -- and acquitted -- in the raid was alleged to have dealt a considerable quantity of cocaine from the apartment. Agudelo, an illegal alien from Colombia, was deported soon after his release.

Somerville city officials declined comment on Swomley's intent to file the suit, noting Tuesday that they had not yet been notified by the attorney. Hyde's boss, Somerville police captain Robert Bradley, also declined to address the planned case, saying that "we don't try these things in the press" and blaming the media for blowing the brutality lawsuit out of proportion. Hyde was unavailable for comment on this issue.

But the allegations by Swomley that Hyde is responsible for unfair detainment of Agudelo, and the accusations of improper conduct in the police-brutality suit, are at odds with the description of Hyde offered by some Somerville city officials.

Kate Auspitz, the city's director of personnel, says Hyde -- who has done undercover work in the past -- has a clean discipline record. And, according to police, he has compiled a stellar résumé since coming to the department in 1986.

When Hyde joined the police department's narcotics squad in 1989, it proved a bad sign for the city's pushers. Hyde eventually rose to the top of the plainclothes squad, becoming the "number-one guy," in the words of his boss, Captain Robert Bradley.

Along the way, he developed a reputation for bravery and compiled some of the city's and state's top police honors. He's been dragged by a car through Somerville's Union Square in a drug bust gone bad; he lost a piece of a finger in a knife attack in another harrowing buy. He's won the department's officer of the year award, and also the state's distinguished Hanna Award.

Bradley has high praise for the officer he says has played a role in several high-profile busts, including the 1997 arrest of several organized-crime figures who allegedly operated a cocaine ring out of Somerville's now-defunct Willow Jazz Club and elsewhere. "He has always been an alert, active, and dedicated police officer who has vigorously pursued wrongdoing in this community," says the police captain.

"He works with the most dangerous people, it's as simple as that," says Somerville police officer Jack Leuchter, head of the city's patrolmen's union. "He has made some big busts. Some of the biggest. He has taken down some heavy hitters."

Acting Somerville mayor Bill Roche says that Hyde will likely face some disciplinary action as a result of the federal verdict, although he, too, calls the decision a win for the city. And with the ongoing state probe and a new lawsuit likely, Hyde may be discovering, after so many busts, that the heat is on him.

As propaganda, it's useless. Anyone who understands it has probably already picked a candidate in the March 30 primary, when one of the three major contenders will drop off, leaving two to fight on through the May 11 general election.

But as a symptom of Somerville politics, the sticker reflects persistent divisions in the 76,000-person blue-collar city. The race to succeed Capuano, who won Joe Kennedy's Eighth Congressional District seat last year, seems to be breaking down along traditional political fault lines.

Two of the candidates -- Curtatone and another alderman, John Buonomo -- stand on opposite sides of an old political divide that's rooted as much in style and personality as in ideology. Much of Somerville's so-called progressive wing backs Curtatone; the more old-school Democratic faction is backing Buonomo, who, after losing a close race to Capuano nearly a decade ago, now counts many of the departed mayor's supporters among his allies. Buonomo's literature, which promises to "keep Somerville moving forward," hints that he would govern largely in the vein of Capuano's accomplished, if autocratic, administration -- in substance though not in style.

Meanwhile, the front-runner in an early (and disputed) poll, failed lieutenant-governor candidate Dorothy Kelly Gay, is calling for an end to the "camps" that have driven the city's politics for so long.

"You have John Buonomo running as Mike Capuano. You have Joe Curtatone running as not being Mike Capuano, and you have a woman, Dorothy Kelly Gay, running as herself, and that's why she's resonating," boasts Kelly Gay consultant Jim Spencer. That's one way of looking at it, to be sure, although other candidates and their advisers would spin it differently. Both Buonomo and Curtatone, for example, have released fairly detailed policy papers on substantive issues such as economic development.

What's clear is that this is one of the most interesting and important city elections Somerville has seen in some time. It's rare for the outcome of a mayor's race to be so uncertain -- both Capuano and his predecessor, Eugene Brune, served for nearly a decade each. The race has already had its share of rumors (like the false one that Kelly Gay is dropping out), and the major candidates know one another well -- Curtatone and Buonomo have been on opposite sides of issues before Somerville's raucous board of aldermen. There are also long-shot campaigns by quirky perennial candidate Phil Hyde and 21-year-old newcomer Matthew Hoey.

The mayor's race will be the only one on the May ballot, and it's big enough to carry the marquee alone. "Anyone who follows politics will not say, `I am looking forward to that selectmen's race in Lexington,' " says Andrew Upton, a Buonomo supporter. "Somerville has a history of hard-fought politics." And if anyone misses it this time, there's a second act. The regularly scheduled city elections next fall mean another round of voting for mayor, and unless one of the candidates demolishes the field, a contested race is likely.

These days, Somerville is grappling with its own success. Though rent and home prices are still lower than in Cambridge and much of Boston, they are soaring, and officials are struggling to keep pace with a slew of development proposals. Thousands in the Boston area are watching the city more closely and visiting it more frequently. The local arts scene is flourishing -- many young artists and writers call Somerville home -- and increasing numbers of young professionals are moving in, particularly on the west side. Somerville's reputation as an up-and-coming city is so established that it's nearly a cliché.

Yet for all the talk of a "new" Somerville, the mayor's race has unfolded against the backdrop of another saga, straight out of the city's rough-and-tumble old school. In a civil suit surrounded by considerable press coverage, a federal jury last week awarded $15,676 in damages to two Hispanic men who accused Somerville police officers of beating them outside a bar at the Holiday Inn in the fall of 1994. The two-week trial was the latest -- and perhaps the final -- development in a story that broke after the two men filed suit in 1997, just beating the statute of limitations. The federal-jury verdict, although it found two officers liable, was called a victory by Somerville officials -- most of the charges were tossed aside, and the award is a small one by all accounts.

Still, the case has allegedly exacerbated existing divisions within the police department. Some speculate that the controversy surrounding the trial -- in which one officer testified against others -- was fueled in part by old animosities stemming from earlier events, including a case in which James Hyde, a decorated narcotics cop who was found liable in the civil case, played a central role. Hyde was accused by a fellow officer of beating a third man, Michael Henderson, on the night at issue in the civil suit; though Henderson was not a plaintiff and testified that he was not beaten by police, his bloodied face has been a central image in the case.

Though "it is not like they are fighting at the station," says one Somerville police officer who declined to be named, sitting in his cruiser on a recent morning between calls, there's truth behind the widespread reports of rifts in the department: "It's a strain, a big strain, this whole thing."

Another officer who declined to be identified agrees the case has had officers revisiting old wounds and hopes that now the tensions will ease. "I hope it's tit for tat, tit for tat, and now it is over," he says. "I hope no one takes another shot."

The verdict does not erase the images that preceded it -- the story has been given heavy play on New England Cable News, which last year collaborated with the Boston Globe on an article that painted the officers as running wild and suggested that the department had covered up the melee. And there may be more to come. The state attorney general's office is probing possible criminal charges in the case, reportedly calling some of the principals before a grand jury.

Alderman Bill White says he hopes the case becomes nothing more than a brief reminder of an image the city has long fought to shrug off. "I think when the news [of the case] first came out, people said this is the type of thing which does not reflect positively on the city," he says. "But I think that with time, it disappears into the background as far as that type of impact."


On a recent Saturday afternoon, the ugliness of the brutality case is far from Kelly Gay's campaign. Aides and volunteers are huddling in Davis Square's Someday Café after a couple hours of holding signs and waving to passing motorists.

Inside the coffee shop, rapper Lauryn Hill is blaring from the speakers, and campaign worker Sean Fitzgerald has to raise his voice to be heard as he looks up from the paperwork spread across one of the tables, where he's poring over a list of possible primary voters. "If you see someone who's not with us, let me know, okay?" he asks a man hovering behind him.

Nearby, a dozen or so people are making final preparations -- divvying up fliers and cards as they ready for another afternoon of door-knocking and persuading residents to vote for the 55-year-old Kelly Gay, a nurse and former member of the Governor's Council and the city's school committee. Saturday, the campaign covered ward six, precinct one, reaffirming support from the "twos" -- which, in campaign lingo, means voters identified as likely supporters -- while looking to sway the "threes," or voters on the fence. "Fours" and "fives," those loyal to opponents, are usually not worth the time.

Mapping and identifying and, on Election Day, getting the ones and twos to the polls will be even more important in this special election than in most campaigns. Spring voting is a rarity, and while the candidates may be very different in terms of personality, they hardly present a diverse ideological menu.

"I don't see mapping this on a left-right spectrum. They are all urban liberals," notes one Somerville official backing Buonomo. "Nobody is going to say we should have larger class size, or not have bilingual education, or that we should build more condominiums for rich people."

Indeed, all the candidates are fairly progressive, yet that's a loaded word in Somerville politics because the largely pro-Capuano faction of the city's political community says that it, too, is progressive. Kelly Gay likewise claims the progressive mantle -- "I believe in a woman's right to choose, I'm pro-choice and have a very progressive record," she tells one undecided voter as she stands on the porch of his Dover Street house -- but even she acknowledges that the race doesn't hinge entirely, or even largely, on ideology. "I don't think that I think in political terms," she says between houses. "I think in terms of what is the right thing to do. It's in my gut. It's the nurse in me."

"I think we're bangin' the [political] center," says Feargal O'Toole, Kelly Gay's press secretary (who's also a manager of the Tir Na Nog, an Irish pub in Somerville's Union Square), as he stands holding a Kelly Gay sign. Then, reconsidering, he notes that Kelly Gay's campaign has "people from the left, people from the right, and people from the center."

What's clear, according to Kelly Gay, is that she's the one most capable of avoiding the squabbling between the city's political wings that began before Capuano became mayor and continued through his nine years in office. "All the us-versus-them, it's time for that to go away," she says. "This city is in a very good position, and we have an opportunity to go forward. And that's what I keep hearing from citizens, that they want this divisiveness to stop."

But even if Kelly Gay can push the "camps" dynamic underground, it still seems certain to show up in Somerville's politics, its homes, and even its taxicabs. Heading east on Highland Avenue on a recent rainy night, a fiftysomething cab driver and Somerville resident says that for him, allegiances that go back more than a decade will sway his vote.

"I'm going to give it to you like this," he says, slowing in front of Buonomo headquarters, near City Hall. "Gene Brune is not backing him [Buonomo]. And I am a Brune man."

The driver's take on the race illustrates as vividly as the ABC bumper sticker what's at play in the election. Former mayor Eugene Brune, who left office in the late 1980s, backed Buonomo in the 1989 mayor's race that Capuano won by just a few hundred votes. Since then, however, Buonomo has aligned himself with the opposing camp, winning the backing of the bulk of Capuano's City Hall supporters. So this time around, Brune is backing Curtatone.

Inside his Highland Avenue campaign office, Buonomo sits at a table with Jim Bretta, the city's head of housing and community development, and former chamber of commerce chair Tom Bent, preparing for the February 9 forum before the chamber. (Bretta was hired before Capuano took office, so he, as Buonomo once was, is technically a "Brune man.") The three men and others are going over the finer points of the candidates' views on how to deal with the city's rising rents and lack of affordable housing.

"I don't believe they [Kelly Gay and Curtatone] understand the issue like I do," says Buonomo not long afterward from the basement of the headquarters, where triangular wooden campaign signs sit ready to be affixed to car roofs. "I lived in public housing. I saw what a help it was to have affordable housing for my parents." Buonomo, 47, is also touting his administrative experience; he's served on the city's school committee and board of aldermen. "To stake out where Somerville is going, it is important to know where it has been and where we are," says Buonomo. "I come to this race from the position of knowing and understanding this city."

In many ways, though, the real action is in the back room of the headquarters, where volunteers are planning literature drops and mapping out other forms of voter contact for the March 30 preliminary. Campaign workers will tell you this is a GOTV (get out the vote) race. That sounds obvious, but in this context, where a few thousand votes will be enough and the margin could be tiny, it means that the campaign logistics -- who your voters are, whether they show up -- are more important than in, say, a gubernatorial race, where candidates rely heavily on paid media, try to hone their messages, and hope they come off well in the "free media" of campaign coverage. Somerville has plenty of media for a small city -- the Somerville Journal, the Somerville Community News, and the Somerville News will cover the race closely, and campaign forums will be aired on the city's cable-access station. Nonetheless, unlike last year's state and federal elections, most of the race will fly below the media radar. "John will make the Globe maybe three or four times before the preliminary," says Andrew Upton. "If he's lucky."

Pivotal in the race will be which voters show up. The most reliable are those who have been voting since the Stone Age, whose names show up in election-department records as casting a ballot in every city race. But Somerville has had an influx of new residents in recent years, and their tendencies in city races -- if they vote at all -- are somewhat unknown. These newer residents are more attracted to Davis Square's Blue Shirt Café -- which serves up tofu and power juices with wheat grass and bee pollen -- than, say, an old-school Somerville eatery like the Paddock, where some members of the city's political establishment convene after meetings. Whether they will vote, and how, is a potential wild card in the race.


Until recently, the parallel mayor's race and police-brutality case had kept their distance from each other. And when the trial and jury deliberations began, the case unfolded far from the triple-decker houses that line Somerville's dense streets, amid the clean modern lines, marbled elevators, and wood-finished surroundings of the airy new federal courthouse that overlooks Boston Harbor.

Two weeks ago, those worlds collided. On February 1, Curtatone sent out a press release on campaign letterhead announcing that Somerville police chief Donald Caliguri was to hold a press conference calling for an "evaluation" of the police department by an independent agency. Immediately, Curtatone was accused of using the upheaval in the police department to his political advantage.

"In retrospect, I should not have done it that way," Curtatone says now. Caliguri is a Curtatone supporter, having contributed $500 to his campaign so far. Both say there is no link between the call for an evaluation and the mayor's race -- Caliguri says he went to Curtatone because the 32-year-old is the acting president of the city's board of aldermen.

"I just thought it was time to call for a comprehensive study of the department to see how well we are doing to see if there is room for improvement," says Caliguri. "It's just looking at the overall organization of the department, the structure, its level of supervision, level of staffing, and the operation of the various units. I'm just completing two years as chief. I've had a chance to look at the department overall."

The event never came off, canceled soon after it was announced. Like so much related to the police department today, the reason remains in dispute. Bill Roche, the city's temporary mayor, says he put the kibosh on the plan because of its possible influence on an unsequestered jury mulling charges against several officers. Curtatone says he canceled it himself because he didn't want people to draw a link between the press conference and the brutality case, and thought it was best to wait until there was a verdict.

In the aftermath, Buonomo blasted Caliguri, saying, "Frankly, if the police chief, after being on the job for two years, can't decide how to manage and run the department, maybe he might want to think about another job."

"It's a politically motivated move on the part of the chief," said Buonomo, and he followed up the sentiment with a press release saying much the same thing. Putting that perception in the public record, alderman Bill White introduced an order before colleagues demanding "that the heads of departments of the city not use their official position to in any way seek to influence the outcome of any city elections or use their office to in any way support or advance the candidacy of anyone."

According to one officer, Caliguri's proposal didn't go over well in a department where, several sources say, the chief's rapport with the rank-and-file officers is not strong. "Doing something like that, especially while the trial is on, shocked everyone," says the officer. Caliguri still wants the evaluation, and has called for it in letters to the mayor and aldermen.

The press-conference fiasco put Curtatone on the defensive, a position he's rarely taken in public life. In three years in city government, Curtatone served as a thorn in Capuano's side; he was heavily involved in such high-profile controversies as the outcry over the hiring of Capuano pal Joe Macaluso as director of the Somerville Housing Authority in 1996.

These days, Curtatone is less prone to whack Capuano publicly. Making the rounds at a Valentine's Day party in an elderly-housing development on the Arlington border, the candidate speaks instead of how he'd govern differently, promising a more "inclusive" administration that gives resident a bigger role. "I was at a coffee last week with about 20 or 25 people, mostly mothers with kids, and their issues were education and the lack of parental input into the process," he says. Moments before, he'd passed out chocolates and campaign literature to the elderly residents seated beneath red streamers and heart decorations in the development's community room. "I want to open a role in community life for all those who want to participate, and that's across the board."

With fewer years of office-holding experience than Buonomo or Kelly Gay, Curtatone claims the virtue of not being a "career politician," even as he chases a seat he's no doubt wanted to hold for many years. "We are all going to identify the same issues," he said recently from his office in the back of his Winter Hill campaign headquarters. "It's pretty common sense where some of these problems are. It's about who can present ideas and vision for economic development, for affordable housing, for education."

But with whatever happened outside the Holiday Inn in 1994 still under the microscope, and with Somerville's political gulf evident in the race, it's also "about" divisions that won't soon fade.

Shabbeer Ahmed

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